Pain is All in the Mind?

Aug 23, 2005

It's day six of one of the ten-day meditation courses that I'm signed up for. Half an hour into my 1PM, half-lotus meditation sit, I am about to shift my posture slightly to give myself some much needed relief. With numb calves, sore quads, and aching knees, it's a natural response. But then, is it?

Over a decade ago, I remember repeatedly telling all my friends that "pain is all in the mind." To be honest, I would come up with all these wild conclusions that somehow "felt" right, and then hunt for rationalizations for it. Quite the inverted process, but it always made for good conversation. :) One of my very good friends, Paul, would argue back in his characteristically vulgar language, "Alright $%@#$, you stand right here and I'll run my car right over you. Then let's see how real pain is." :)

Well, alright, I personally wouldn't take a chance with a car :) but if Jesus can wish compassion for people driving nails into his body and if Gandhi can bless the assassin who pummeled his thin frame with three rapid-fire bullets, come on, there's gotta something else going on.

Pain, actually, turns out to be a very intriguing phenomena. This is what science tells us about it:

When we stub our toe, it hurts ? but only because our brain says so. Damage-detecting sensory neurons flash a message to the spinal cord, spinal cord neurons relay the message to the brain, and the brain decides (a) damage has occurred, (b) it has been inflicted on the toe, and (c) something needs to be done (we start hobbling, raise the foot, utter an expletive). It may feel as if our toe is throbbing, but the experience is all contained within a mental projection of the condition of our toe within our brain.

Now, neuroscientists note that each time we react to a sensation in a particular way, it reinforces that "neural pathway" in our brain; ie. the next time we experience that sensation, we will react in an even stronger way because we have taught ourselves that. Our pain -- and pleasure -- then, is just a conditioned response aggregated over millions of experiences. Science stops there, but sages invite us to go a step further: step out of your ignorant patterns of dis-satisfaction and see what happens.

What would happen if we didn't react to the sensations we feel? Would they go away? What would happen next? What exactly remains, when we uncondition our brains of all its neural patterns? Perhaps an unconditioned mind was what prevented Gandhi and Jesus from not uttering a single cry for help in the face of intense pain?

I don't know what it is, but today, I am in the mood for some serious investigation. Maybe it is the culmination of our meditation binge or the solitary lifestyle or the bland diet or the commercial-free thoughts or the resurfacing of some past life as an Himalayan ascetic. :) I don't know, but today, I am going to unflinchingly stare down my pain, mano-e-mano, and see what happens. Sometimes in life, you gotta pull all the stops and on pilgrimages, those sometimes come a little bit more often than usual.

My lab is the 3x7 foot meditation cell, my instrument is this body labeled as Nipun, and my experiment is to finally test my decade-old, "pain is all in the mind" hypothesis.

Deep breath. Another deep breath. The next eight hours, from 1PM-9PM straight, would be one of the gutsiest experiences of my waking life.

Barely thirty minutes into the 1PM sit on a cushioned mat on the ground, my legs start dying on me. Pain. My calves are numb, my right quad feels like a tow-truck is pulling on it, my right knee has a sharp shooting pain. The good book says that all sensations are transitory, so ok, I'm hoping that this goes away. I stay still in observation mode. But ten more minutes and my misery is rapidly multiplying -- oh, the pain! Please change. Darn it, change! Now! But no. The top of my foot feels like someone is burning coals on it, my thighs are going out fast, and now my back and shoulder blades are complaining with unrelenting throbbing sensations.

I don't know what to do. Really, there are only two ways out: unlock your posture, get up and stretch or stay with the pain until it passes away. Our whole life is about adjusting, twisting and turning to run away from the pain. So what's one more time? "Come on, Nipun, just adjust a bit. You're playing silly games with yourself. Don't try to be macho. You are a computer scientist, not an ascetic yogi. This is not the middle way." Fancy people have fancy justifications for their actions -- doubts, thoughts, rationalizations -- and I tried them all.

While I usually get mobbed by the echoes of my own thoughts, today, nothing was coming back. I'd yell but no echo. I couldn't believe it; my pain couldn't believe it!

Somehow I survive the stillness. After the first meditation sit, when I release my half-lotus posture for a few minutes, I notice my entire mind gushing to that opening of "relief". Instead of reacting, I again try to observe what feels like ultimate bliss. :) And of course, the pain returns! I am in pain, but by now, I'm also seriously curious if this pain will actually go away if I sit longer.

Over the next meditation hour, I eagerly watch my sensations equanimously to see if I can uncondition my neural pathways of blind reaction. Secretly, I'm hoping that the pain goes away. Nope, rapidly increasing pain. Raw pain. I want to quit, but I tell myself, "This far into the experiment, you can't bail on me. What if it's just on the edge of a radical mutation?" I decide to go for another hour of locked, upright stillness without absolutely any movements.

The Buddha taught that if we simply stop reacting to sensations, we loosen our old habit patterns and take a step towards experiencing the joy of impermanent reality as it is. It makes full sense to me. I even remember seeing it scientifically articulated in What The Bleep Do We know (a docu-drama on Quantum Physics). No expression, no suppression, just observation of the ongoing flow of sensations -- pleasure or pain -- and you will change your brain patterns and thus, your experience of the world.

In theory, I am sold. In practice, I am dying of pain.

I release my half lotus posture just to check for any serious physical damage. I'm surely roughed up but still okay. Part of me says that the physical pain is an accumulation of the last fours of continuous meditation (with maybe a couple minutes of rest to travel from one hall to another). But then, a larger part of me says that every moment is a different experience and my theory of accumulated pain is actually just a projection of my own mind. A minute or two later, I'm back in my half lotus posture. Round 4, buddy.

By this hour, although the "pain" doesn't vanish, I clearly see it transform from numbness to heat, from throbbing to pulsating, from stings to sharp tugs. Alright, so there is sign of life. :) I walk from my meditation cell to the 6PM sit, about a minute away. Yet another hour. I feel like I'm being operated on, without anesthesia! This time, though, it dawns on me that my awareness is drastically sharper; when we say, "my quad is hurting", it's actually never your full quadricep. It's just that the pain is so overwhelming that you are blinded to other, subtler experiences. Once the suffering goes away from the pain and the pain becomes what it is -- just a sensation -- you experience it in some isolated spot on the body, next to which are so many other kinds of sensations. Your whole body starts to come alive.

To write about my six hours of meditation in a couple of paragraphs is to almost trivialize it; what takes one sentence to describe actually feels like an entire eternity in hell. Maybe not hell hell, but close. :) Because this kind of equanimity goes against everything we have done for our whole lives (maybe even more), everything in you starts revolting vehemently. Doubts, tensions, unease. You sense some gooey stuff underneath your "sole" and walking with that glue is rather cumbersome, especially after you become aware of it. Yet your weak mind responds with, "Not now. Later." Every moment we refuse life's incredible invitation for true joy and we procrastinate our own freedom. Why? Because we're too busy with our todo-lists, we're too caught up with our achievements, we're too blinded by our senses. This is the unfortunate yet humorous story of our lives.

Sooner or later, though, your "not now" has to turn into a "right now". And my 'now' arrives just in time. Today, my inner voice wouldn't let me quit.

In such a state, though, your will power is on bankrupt and all your beliefs are thrown out the window. Concepts can't save you now. It's you and your absolute deepest convictions.

Curiously, I discover my two biggest allies: science and service. Science provides the rational backdrop to quiet my mind, and service provides the experiential inspiration to keep marching. It's a very interesting combination. Science informs me that this is not just your extreme-sport thrill-ride; it's about unconditioning the wired patterns of your brain so you witness life as it is. Service tells me that selflessness is joy, ego is pain, and sincerity alone is not enough to remove the ego. You need insight and until that insight awakens, ego will keep on creeping into your actions. Furthermore, this wisdom isn't a function of will, but rather of patient observation. Wisdom blossoms naturally when the conditions are ripe.

So, really, all that is left to do is be still in the face of everything and anything. It's the ultimate adventure, if you think about it. Alright, pain or pleasure, I'm gonna sit another hour.

I'm pumped-up like there is no tomorrow. I always had a sense that all this pain was inside of me, but for once in my life, I didn't want to escape it. Still, I'm also truly humbled. By no means, am I expecting an Eckhart-Tolle-like experience of enlightenment. It's quite clear that I have miles and miles to go before I sleep ... I mean, wake up. :)

Eight hours after my rather unexpected stint of grit, it is time for the meditation hall to close. I'm definitely at the end of my rope, in terms of my physical and mental strength. Before getting up, there's a small phrase chanted three times -- bhavattu sabba managalam (may all beings be happy).

Wishing happiness for others, in the midst of so much pain, is a quite a trippy experience. "May all beings be happy." And then almost spontaneously, "Ah, I'm so sorry to have inflicted all my subtle pain-bodies onto all life, for so long."

Like a beat-up, roughed-up soldier, I hobble to my room. I have never ever consciously experienced so much pain in my life. Never. I'm sure if any of the assistant teachers found out about my unrelenting determination sits, they would think I'm on some crazy trip; but it feels just right to me. My clock has struck.

Because our minds are preoccupied in the dense material experiences of life, we have lost our sensitivity to experience our own aliveness. Our bodies are practically dead. Fortunately, we hold the trigger to sharpen our own awareness. And once we fire, we can bear witness to the magic of the rapidly changing sensations on our bodies and uncondition the neural pathways in our brain. It is only when we come alive in this way that we can serve with selfless compassion, act with pure non-violence, and breath with boundless gratitude in our hearts. The rest, as they say, is elementary.

I lie down in bed. I can't sleep sideways or on my stomach, because my knees are royally busted. I look at the ceiling in my room. I haven't had electricity for the last nine days in my room but today, it simply doesn't matter. I have nothing left in me to disagree with anything.

Before closing my eyes, one last time, I valiantly lift my hands up in the air -- I maybe down but I'm far from out. It is said that Gautam Buddha worked for 4 incalculable eons before he became fully liberated. Well, 4 incalculable eons minus one day for "Nipun Mehta"? Long ways to go but one step closer.

Pain is, I'd still tell Paul, all in the mind.

[ My eyes open at 3:30AM the next morning, way earlier than usual. In the shock of my life, my body feels perfectly fine! Inspired, I pull another 1-9PM on the next day. Sensations do change; it's not so bad after all. :) ]

Bookmark and Share


Projects I'm Involved With

"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."